There's a great story that explains the title of the new Soul Jazz compilation of A Certain Ratio material: Factory records boss Tony Wilson asked style commentator Peter York what he thought A Certain Ratio sounded like. York replied 'early'. When pressed to expand on this, York added, 'no. Just Early.' It's a suitably simple, dynamic, enigmatic description.
I came late to A Certain Ratio. I had heard the name and probably heard something on the radio through the early '80s, but really, like with so many things, I hadn't a clue. I hadn't a clue that ACR had been part of the centre of the UK faction of the ultra-cool early '80s New York scene, sharing bills and cross-fertilising with the likes of Bush Tetras, 23 Skidoo, the whole Ze scene, Jean Michel Basquiat, Madonna and all. I hadn't a clue about how ACR and ESG were connected through spirit and Factory, or how ACR were right at the roots of the most stylish and sharpest of club cultures and in fact I hadn't a clue about ESG either, or in fact any of that at all. My teenage education really did leave an awful lot to be desired.
All of that changed however in 1987 when Patrick handed me a tape of the Sextet and Graveyard and the Ballroom albums. He told me not to listen to the tape right away, but to stick it on my walkman, and go down to the beach at sunset, which I duly did. And when I stood there, a June evening with the sun going down behind Arran and the tide gently coming in, looking over at the empty space left on the end of the prom by the old swimming pool, A Certain Ratio sounded like no-one else I'd ever heard. A Certain Ratio sounded like the greatest band on earth.
A few weeks later, I found myself sharing an all-night party with Patrick and a bunch of others from our Art school studio; a party where we went out to chase the sunrise and ended up in a top floor flat in Kelvinside, looking out on Glasgow awakening. As I went to catch the train home I had a pile of ACR records and tapes clutched tightly under my arm, which I ended up playing all day and into the next night and early morning, sat in the sun on front door steps and hiding out in dark bedrooms, dancing inside my head and heart, eyes out on stalks, burning like flaming matches. ACR kind of had that effect.
ACR always looked great. They always had a perfect sense of style and were several steps ahead of the pack at all times. I remember they had a thing for khaki shorts, and I put a line about that into my desperate first attempt at a novel, not that anyone would know but me of course, but it was there nevertheless. And didn't they also have a great acronym that used great typography, including the signs for square root and the colon? Very cryptic and immeasurably cool.
Of course ACR fans were also immeasurably cool and stylish, which was probably why I never managed to get drawn into being as obsessive and devoted as most. I've never been happy with trying to follow real cutting edge style, and have always felt intimidated by fashion; I prefer to observe from the sidelines, take notes and slink away to my bedroom or attic to dream and scheme. So it was in my bedroom where I cut up photocopies of ACR sleeves and pasted them into fanzine pages about all kinds of other things, notably Glasgow, New Year fairgrounds, sunrises, suede jackets and bridges over the river Clyde. I thought at the time that it was all very cryptic and expressive, allusions all over the place, when really it was all bloody obvious. Most of the pages ended up unused, in a box in the attic, or burned in the back garden, but they were made; they were Important Times, and ACR were right in there at their core, leading and feeding it all. ACR had that kind of effect.
Listening to Early now, ACR still have that kind of effect. These recordings collected on Early still cut to the quick, still slice and open up scars in the most magnificently pure manner. They still make me want to get off my ass and move, to get going; out, in, up, away, back, who cares. They still make me want to stand out on the rooftops and proclaim my love for a million and one things. They still sound spooked, spooky, strung out electro-funky with razor wire at their core: thee great collision between sharp soul poise, dynamic, pared down funk rhythm and (post) Punk threat.
ACR still sound like no-one else.
© Alistair Fitchett 2002